How Christians Care for One Another When Their Leaders Fall

Last weekend was the first time Harvest Bible Chapel gathered for worship without James MacDonald as its senior pastor.

Days after firing the church’s founder, the elders of the Chicago-area multisite congregation announced more changes. The executive committee—the top leaders on the elder board—would also be resigning within months. A task force had been formed to review church structure and processes. This week, the elder board winnowed from 30 people to 9.

At Harvest, concerns had lingered for years after the church’s dismissal of three elders in 2013, alleged mismanagement, and negative reports swirling around MacDonald. As leaders and members pray and plan for a healthier church culture, they’re also left lamenting the hurt, confusion, and discord that’s led to this point.

“We know there are many of you feeling shock and frustration—those feelings are real and understandable. We know there are many who have been grieved by these things over the past weeks, months and even years—and we share your grief,” Dave Learned, pastor of counseling ministry, told the congregation on Saturday night. “Our earnest desire is that God would, in his grace, forgive our sins, heal our wounds, and restore unity and harmony to this congregation.”

Harvest numbers around 12,000 members across seven campuses. As a result of the saga, some have already stopped attending or joined nearby congregations, including 2,000 that left around the 2013 incident. During a major transition for the congregation—and the loss of the charismatic preacher who had been its famous face and voice—more will inevitably opt to leave.

Either way, if they stay or go, the body of Christ absorbs the blow; “if one part suffers, every part suffers with it” (1 Cor. 12:26). Those affected by the turmoil at Harvest—or elsewhere—need space to grieve and the hope of the gospel.

Church leaders and fellow pastors in the Chicago suburbs have opened their doors to those who fled Harvest. A former women’s ministry director at Harvest who left four years ago, Lina Abujamra, posted on Facebook last week to invite anyone over who needed to talk about what was going on at the church.

“While only a handful showed up, the range of their pain was wide. Some women were still in the middle of the trauma and were still currently attending Harvest. Others had old wounds that had resurfaced and were hurting, having never felt closure to their stories,” Abujamra, a Bible teacher and Moody Radio host, wrote on her blog.

“For years, they had been made to feel like the outcasts, but finally vindication in its godly form was working its way out. And still some came because their loved ones and spouses have abandoned the faith completely and now refuse to go to church—and they long to understand why.”

At Judson University in Elgin, Illinois, campus minister Chris Lash found himself discussing MacDonald’s leadership and firing with students, many of them new believers. Their line of questions felt sadly familiar. Lash similarly saw students grapple with Bill Hybels’s departure from Willow Creek Community Church less than a year ago.

“I’m seeing people who are really burned by a place like Harvest. They’re confused,” said Lash, the director of university ministries, who is planning discussion sessions to address the role of lament and how a Christian responds when the church fails. “Whether it’s the darkness of sin, the darkness of leadership abuses, let’s name that for what it is, and let Christ begin to heal.”

While Harvest and Willow Creek represent two recent, prominent examples in the Chicago area, abuses of power and church mismanagement happen across denominations and in churches of all sizes. Plenty in the pews have been left with the twisted grief of watching once-respected leaders leave their positions and facing the reality of a church in crisis.

Five years ago, after mounting controversy, Mark Driscoll resigned from Mars Hill Church, the multisite megachurch he famously founded around Seattle. Christians across the individual campuses—which became independent churches and took on new names months after he left—grappled with defending their former preacher, dismissing him outright, or just wondering what went wrong.

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Source: Christianity Today